Prudent Matches

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I've been reading all over the blogosphere about the January 3, 2006 NY Times editorial by John Tierney, discussing how smart, educated straight women are likely to end up alone because they won't date dumb men with bad jobs: these women actually do something so calculated and unromantic as consider a man's earning potential in deciding whether or not to marry him.

I admit I haven't read the editorial--I don't subscribe to the paper version of the Times, so if I want to read its columnists on line, I have to pay for the privilege, and I wouldn't fork over my last dingy centime or any other piece of no-longer-current European currency to read a single word by that shithead Tierney. Thus, my response is based only on a few excerpts and synopses provided by others. And my reaction to the synopses and excerpts I have read is pretty much this:

Duh. So what.

I mean, OF COURSE INTELLIGENT, EDUCATED STRAIGHT WOMEN TEND TO THINK ABOUT HOW MUCH MONEY A GUY IS LIKELY TO EARN IN DECIDING WHETHER OR NOT TO MARRY HIM. AN ABILITY TO GRASP THE IMPORTANCE OF THINGS LIKE FINANCES IS PART OF WHAT MAKES THEM SMART AND PART OF WHAT HELPED THEM BECOME EDUCATED.

Before I pursue that premise any further, let me make one thing clear: I'm a big believer in love. I love a lot of people. I've been in love and it has changed my life in ways I'm still grateful for. I think falling in love is one of the best things that can happen to someone. I believe in the redemptive power and possibilities of love.

And I used to think that the fact that you really, truly loved somebody sort of meant you HAD to get married, because if you love someone as much as I loved a couple of people, your feelings for them OBLIGATED you to vow to spend the rest of your life with them.

Funny how things work out.

I'm sure someone will accuse me of being as cynical and cold-blooded as John Tierney seems to have labeled my entire demographic group for what I'm about to say next. But despite my belief in love I question whether or not it is really the main reason we marry, and perhaps I feel that way not only because I am a 42-year-old single woman with a PhD, but because I'm a 42-year-old single woman with a PhD who twice in her life rather expected to get married to men I loved whole-heartedly--once I was even engaged. But I didn't end up marrying either of those two men I loved so deeply. The fiancé I didn't marry because he was gay, though we're still friends, partly because he had the decency NOT to marry me--it would have been pretty easy for him to go through with the wedding so that he could live a conventional "straight" life, much like the guys in Brokeback Mountain (which I saw with Wayne over Christmas and which I plan to write about in the near future). The other I didn't marry for a whole range of reasons including the fact that he never asked me and that, as he informed me eventually, he was "ashamed" (his word--I'm not making this up) to love me because he knew his father wouldn't approve of me: I hadn't gone to an ivy league university, like his family did; I was from rural Arizona instead of the suburban Connecticut; I had had braces but not a nosejob as a teenager. (The guy's father was a plastic surgeon, and this rotten ex of mine had miserable teeth but a finely sculpted nose.) The fact that I was more likely to finish my dissertation and get a job than he was, was actually another strike against me--he felt threatened.

So yeah, I learned a few lessons there about prudence.

I also know too many Mormons who got married far too young to the wrong person--a person whom, in their limited experience, they honestly believed they loved. But they were 21, fairly naive, incredibly horny and anxious to remain a technical virgin long enough that they could get married in the temple, which means "obeying the law of chastity," or not committing fornication. What they actually married for, some of them discovered eventually, was lust, curiosity and boredom.

I also know people who got married because (as they admitted either at the time or when they tried to figure out how they ended up in such a screwed-up marriage) they felt it was the next step in adulthood, and although they claimed to love the person they married, the marriages didn't last long--though they often lasted longer than they should have.

I also know people who got married primarily to obtain health benefits for themselves or their partner. Some of those marriages have survived; some haven't. But as advocates for gay marriage point out, a legally recognized marriage is important not because it creates or recognizes any kind of LOVE, but because it creates and recognizes economic and social privileges and rights.

This whole discussion reminds me of what happened when I taught a course on the novels of Jane Austen at the University of Iowa in 2001. (Which isn't surprising given that the title of Tierney's article is "Male Pride and Female Prejudice," although the way the article is summarized--"Traditionalists seem to be a dwindling minority as men have come to appreciate the value of a wife's paycheck"–suggests that Tierney's never read Austen carefully enough to notice the plethora of fortune-hunting men chasing little girls with big dowries.) The course was an evening course that met once a week for two and a half hours. I had 20 students, 19 young women and one young man, which made for an interesting dynamic: there was one night when the guy had to leave early, and after he walked out of the room the rest of us looked at each other and burst out laughing--there was this cool slumber-party feel to the rest of the evening. (He also mentioned at the end of the semester that he had learned more from that class than from any other class he had ever taken--he had never realized how much he didn't know about women. Imagine!)

Anyway, although I loved the class, I was extremely disappointed when I collected the first batch of papers: all but two or three of them advanced the simplistic, facile assertion that "In Austen's day people married for money, but today, we marry for love." It pissed me off because it was wrong on both counts, and it meant the students weren't paying close attention either to the books we were reading or the lives of people around them. In Austen's day, money was certainly a consideration but it wasn't the only one, and there was and remains a difference between a cold-blooded hunt for the richest spouse you can possibly catch, and a realistic recognition of what kind of income you have to have if you want to raise two kids and send them to college.

So to prove my point I wrote up a list of various scenarios involving love, status, social background and wealth, which I'll post next time.

3 Comments

Very interesting piece - excellent points. Charlotte Bronte said: "Conventionality is not morality," and I would add that conventionality is not love, either. Marriage is often influenced by societial, economical, parental and religious pressures - as you point out! Many feel a pressure to "couple" in our society, and despite the divorce rate, they are made to feel they are "missing out." Too much emphasis, I believe, is put on romantic love, and therefore, some people "miss out" on deep and satisfying friendships. :)

I look forward to your list.

Frankengirl--I agree with all you say.

I think the challenge is not to settle. Don't settle for a mediocre marriage just because it seems like the thing to do or it's comfortable, and don't settle for friendships that don't provide what they should. Compromise so that everyone can be happy is one thing; settling for less than you deserve is another. That's a good way to ensure that you miss out on things like truly rewarding friendships.

I agree with you, Holly, that it's the successful combination of a satisfactory income and enough love to hold you together that makes a successful marriage. I have seen marriages fail many times because the couples in question spend all their time and energy on money worries. If there is not enough to go round then it becomes almost impossible to enjoy the other benefits of the marriage. I also believe that people who love each other TOO much won't make good marriage partners, either. Love that becomes obsessive or overwhelming is the love of tragedy. Something that burns that quickly and fiercely will not last. I'm looking forward to tomorrow's list.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on January 10, 2006 9:19 AM.

In Praise of the C Word was the previous entry in this blog.

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